Rain means clouds, and clouds mean that my son cannot see any shooting stars.
This is not good, especially since he finally saw his first one, and he is really primed for the annual Perseid Meteor Shower this weekend.
Oh, I hope it is clear …
Now, you will notice that I have kinda mixed up shooting stars with meteors. This is because, as you well know, they are the same thing. While this is a simple and clear thing to say to most adults, it is utterly impossible to explain to a young child. Most children innately know that shooting stars are real stars that loose their heavenly grip and literally fall from the sky. This just makes sense … and why else would they call them “stars?”
Meteors, as everyone knows, are large chunks of space rock that plunge to Earth and leave large craters. That’s why the ones on display at the space museums are called meteorites.
Oh, that’s what you thought, too?
OK, let’s start from the beginning…
Shooting stars have little to do with real stars. About the only similarities are that they both shine, and they do so best at night. While stars are like our sun, they do their twinkling trillions of miles away. How much is a trillion? It’s only a million times a million, or a one followed by 12 zeros. A trillion is a number so big that astronomers don’t usually write it out, they usually divide it by the annual speed of light. This helps a lot considering that our closest star — besides the sun — is some 26 trillion miles away. Since light travels around six trillion miles per year, this closest star is about 4.3 light years away. Now, it is not important to completely understand all of this, but to have a sense for it all. In a nutshell, stars are just too darn far away to fall through our atmosphere. Oh, and they are too big, too hot, too bright and … well, you get the picture.
While meteorites are cool to see, they are indeed rare.
Meteors, on the other hand, are not. Still, they both come from the same source — meteoroids.
Wow, is this simple or what?
Again, a nutshell … Meteoroids are cosmic pieces that range in size from dust to asteroids. Most, however, are just dust. When this space dust enters our gravitational pull and starts to fall through our atmosphere, it starts to heat up. This frictional heating continues until the darn thing starts to glow … and glow brightly … as bright as a star.
Unfortunately, most of them heat and glow to the point where they completely burn up and nothing is left of them … except for a memory.
A few very rare large ones actually hit the surface of the Earth. These are now called meteorites.
So, shooting stars are not stars at all, but another name for meteors.
Here’s another beaut of a sentence: Shooting stars are not rare, but they are rarely seen.
There are many reasons for this. Light pollution would be a major factor, but simply not looking would be more likely. On any clear night, dozens of shooting stars can be seen each hour. It just takes time, patience and a dark site. But also, shooting stars streak across the sky with impossible speed and timing. So fast and momentary are they that you are not likely to point one out to a friend.
And this makes my son’s first shooting star extra special.
The other night we were visiting an astronomical program. While walking over to the observatory he asked me the same question that he has asked me all summer, “Dad, will we see any shooting stars tonight?”
I smiled and said, “Tonight’s a perfect night, and this is a perfect place to look for them.”
He said, “Good! There’s one now!”
Not convinced, I turned to him first, but then I saw everyone looking up. I caught the end of one of those shooting stars that reside clearly in your memory for your entire life. A loud cheer came up from the nearby observatory as they saw it, too.
“Wow, son, that’s one of the best shooting stars I have ever seen! You are not likely to see one like that again for a long time.”
He seemed immensely proud, and I think he understood. He spent much of the rest of the hour looking for more … and he saw, maybe, a half dozen.
Now, he is looking forward to seeing his first meteor shower. (I am hoping here that we all know that a meteor shower has nothing to do with rain.)
Meteor showers happen annually at certain times of the year. Their existence and consistent schedules mark times when Earth passes through a dusty portion of its orbit around the sun. In the next few days, we will pass through the dust field left by comet Swift-Tuttle.
As the angle would have it, this dust passes into our atmosphere from the northeast and appears to radiate from the constellation Perseus (the guy who cut off Medusa’s snaky head.) The angle also dictates that post-midnight viewing is best. Since things in space are so darn large, this dust field goes on for days, but peaks during the predawn hours of Aug. 12.
According to the forecast, it is supposed to rain this weekend … not dogs and cats, but meteors … I mean shooting stars.
Gary Gerrone is a naturalist and freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 329-7135.
See the shower …
If skies are clear, head on out to the Carlisle Reservation Nielson Observatory between 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. to view the event. Bring along a blanket, lawn chair and some patience. Telescope viewing will also be possible. Co-sponsored by Black River Astronomical Society and the Lorain County MetroParks.
lTo learn more about this weekend’s Perseid Meteor Shower log on to NASA’s Web site: